You’ll find examples of customization all over: burritos created Chipotle-style, paninis grilled to order, personal pizzas. But the wok station at Hendrix College in central Arkansas is taking this idea one step further.
Students choose their ingredients, and then, rather than handing them off to a cook working behind the line, they take matters into their own hands, placing the items into sizzling woks and making the magic happen themselves.
“A lot of kids in this generation have grown up so focused on sports and academics, they haven’t learned how to cook; they’re missing that life skill,” says Cindy Mosley, MS, RD, LD, associate director of dining services/dietitian.
After freshmen and other first-timers get over their initial apprehension about the wok bar, they seek it out.
“There is always an attendant there for instruction,” Mosley says. “We pride ourselves on the interaction between students and staff. They’re comfortable enough to ask for help.”
The wok station got its start more than a decade ago at the old dining hall, where a smaller amount of ingredients still drew long lines of wannabe chefs eager to try their hand at stir-fry. The concept subsequently earned a spot in the new dining hall, where it now has more ingredients (especially plant-based ingredients) to choose from, and is seen as the go-to option for the student who’s looking for something different.
“This is a self-action station that’s always busy,” Mosley says. “Especially students who will say, ‘I don’t like anything here today.’ We tell them, ‘Well, go create something.’”
Items on hand to stir-fry on the two induction burners include proteins like beef, ham, chicken and tofu, herbs, spices, cooking oils, sauces, liquid eggs, rice, condiments and broths, but the focus is on vegetables.
Partly responsible is the college’s new partnership with the Meatless Monday Campaigns. Last year, the dining program started using Meatless Monday as a resource, posting recipes for meatless stir-fry dishes near the wok bar.
“As a dietitian, I encourage them to take a quick walk over to the steamed vegetable bar and also the salad bar for raw vegetables,” Mosley says. “It’s also about having the chance to be healthy—to add more vegetables. It’s not just pasta and meat, although they certainly can also add pasta. But more often, they’re exploring veggies. The students pushed for kale and they use spinach too.”
Cooking together also lets students from diverse backgrounds get to know each other.
“The hometown cuisines that they bring into from all over the country and the world is great to see,” Mosley says. “I’ve seen them using herb and spice combinations that I’ve never seen before.”
Overall, it’s the cooking experience that students will take with them when their dining hall days are over.
“I think what they really get out of it is creativity and confidence,” Mosley says.